The Cabinet of Dr. Caligai - Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari - Robert Wiene - lamplighter - square - reward poster - gaslight

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
1920, directed by Robert Wiene

The first thing people usually notice about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the strangeness of its visuals. It’s set in a black and white wonderland of melted gingerbread and lopsided architecture with acting stylized to fit. It’s natural therefore to view the plot as more weirdness, an embellishment that parallels the alien physical world, but in fact the reverse is more accurate. The Expressionist style is not just a fashion choice, it materializes the point of view of an insane character. It would be a mistake, then, to treat the movie merely as some stylish object and neglect to explore the logic behind its odd story.

The challenge is put to us in the last seconds when the doctor, now revealed as benevolent unlike the villainous Caligari that Francis takes him for, says he now believes he can cure Francis. The doctor aims these final words straight at the viewer, inviting us to complete the story ourselves by psychoanalyzing its protagonist. This challenge would be worthless if the film didn’t give us all the material we need to analyze Francis – and it gives us plenty.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligai - Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari - Robert Wiene - Lil Dagover - Conrad Veidt - Jane - rooftops - abduction

Let us begin with the premise that a movie’s narrative structure is a gateway into its purpose. The fault lines of its outward form provide cleavage points to help the viewer crack its mysteries. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a framed narrative, a story within a story. It begins in the present tense, quickly dives into a flashback as Francis tells an elaborate story of murder and chaos in his hometown, and finally returns to the garden bench back in the present. This bookended structure facilitates analysis because it invites comparisons between the inner and outer stories.

As soon as Francis finishes his tale and walks into the asylum with the old man, we see how the inner and outer stories correspond with each other, as the characters from Francis’ story appear one after another in the asylum’s hall. The somnambulist Cesare stands meekly to the side picking petals off a bouquet. Jane sits enthroned in the middle of the room imagining herself a queen, and Dr. Caligari comes down the stairway, the director of the asylum just as he was in the flashback. The only major character missing is Alan. Alan’s absence doesn’t prove anything, but it opens a fertile line of questioning. Could it be that Alan was actually killed? If so, then the simplest explanation would be that Francis murdered his best friend out of jealousy. Jane might have gone mad with grief, or the young woman on the throne could be Francis’ surrogate for Jane.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligai - Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari - Robert Wiene - Werner Krauss - Rathaus - German Expressionism
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligai - Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari - Robert Wiene - Werner Krauss - Conrad Veidt - Lil Dagover - Cesare - Jane
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari - asylum - Jane - Cesare - Lil Dagover - Conrad Veidt

Once we start down this path, we find that Francis incriminates himself again and again in his tale. First of all, Alan’s murderer is never actually visible. We might assume the shadow behind Alan’s bed is Cesare’s, but only Alan witnesses the killer’s identity. When Francis learns of Alan’s death he looks uncomfortable, his eyes shifting until he recalls the somnambulist and suddenly fixes blame on him. At the police station Francis reenacts the crime as if from muscle memory, stabbing the air with an invisible knife. He declares that he will not rest until the truth comes out, which is another way of saying that his mind will not be set right as long as he hides the truth from himself.

One of the subtlest clues comes as Alan and Francis return home after Cesare’s dire prophecy. Before they enter the scene, a lamplighter lights a gas lamp in the empty square. This might look like a trivial piece of scenery, but light has a metaphorical value, and the lamplighter is focusing our attention on a particular detail: a poster that reads “Murder – 1000 Marks reward”. By itself this means nothing surprising, but the following cut brings us to Jane’s entrance. We’ve seen Jane once before, walking like a phantom through the willow branches in the asylum garden, but this is her first appearance within Francis’ story. In montage theory a cut often equates the two objects it joins. If Francis killed Alan out of jealousy, then Jane is, in his mind, the reward for murder. The famous director and film theorist Sergei Eisenstein disparaged Caligari for its lack of montage, but this is a better use of montage than Eisenstein ever dreamed of.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligai - Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari - Robert Wiene - Lil Dagover - Conrad Veidt - Jane - bedroom

The distorted set designs already tell us that Francis is an unreliable narrator, and there are a few logical discrepancies in his story that give him away. In a few scenes, like Caligari’s visit to the town clerk, Francis is absent and wouldn’t be likely to know what occurred. Also a whole night intervenes between Alan excitedly coaxing Francis to the fair and their actual visit to the fair. And yet, even though we can’t trust Francis’ story, some truth emerges through the cracks of his deception. If Francis really killed Alan then his story is a kind of alibi, meant to convince himself and others of his innocence. Francis always paints himself as the hero. He leads the police around, spies on the doctor, chases Dr. Caligari to the asylum, and then – incredible for a young man storming in without any proof – persuades the psychiatric staff to put their own boss under surveillance and ransack his office.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligai - Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari - Robert Wiene - Friedrich Fehér - Rudolf Lettinger - Lil Dagover - Francis - Dr. Olsen - Jane

Fleshing out the details of his alibi, we can imagine now that Francis invented Cesare as a surrogate for himself, much like Caligari’s dummy, to distance himself from his own guilt. (It’s fitting that after her abduction Jane looks at Francis and shouts “Cesare”.) Cesare conveniently murders Alan, and to remove the guilt one step further, Francis puts the somnambulist under the control of an evil doctor embodied by the asylum director. Francis then invents the attempted murderer as a third stand-in for himself – someone who wanted to kill a woman (in Francis’ case Jane, for rejecting him) but couldn’t bring himself to do it (he loves Jane) and who gets imprisoned (as Francis is locked up in the asylum). It’s not a coincidence that the would-be murderer gets caught right in front of Francis’ house.

In this light, the prophecy scene also takes on a second meaning. Alan eagerly asks Cesare to tell his future, and Francis tries in vain to prevent him from asking. In Francis’ mind, Alan, by taking Jane away from him, is “asking for it” in the common manner of speech, the way people say that any transgressor is “asking” to be punished.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligai - Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari - Robert Wiene - Friedrich Fehér - Hans Heinrich von Twardowski - Hans-Heinz von Twardowski - Francis - Alan

There is still plenty of room for ambiguity. It’s possible, for instance, to suppose that Francis loves Alan more than Jane. When he says “We both love her” his face seems to be overflowing with affection for Alan, so it’s plausible that he views Jane as a binding agent for a more important homoerotic relationship. This would not change the psychological dynamic – Francis would still feel betrayed when Alan chooses Jane over him, and the story would still work as a study of self-deception with the same elaborate alibi.

In summary, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a picture of how the mind works. It shows how people minimize thier guilt, creating self-serving myths to convince themselves they’re not responsible. It’s a story of murder, kidnapping, and insanity, but its lesson is not limited to criminals and pathological cases. It reveals how ordinary people distort their own mental biographies, disregarding inconvenient facts to make themselves look virtuous. It also casts suspicion on the desire to be heroic, which usually overcompensates for some shortcoming.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligai - Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari - Robert Wiene - Friedrich Fehér - Hans Lanser-Rudolf - Francis - asylum garden

Going beyond the plot, the opening scene has extra resonance when viewed in a broad cultural context. The old man is just concluding his own tale: “Spirits surround us on all sides. They have driven me from hearth and home, from wife and child.” Audiences in 1920 would have recognized this fragment as the sort of fiction any number of popular 19th century writers might have created. It sounds like a gothic horror story, and Jane’s ghostly appearance encourages the impression. But in truth there is nothing supernatural in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The somnambulist is presented as a medical phenomenon, and his prophecy is self-fulfilling. But the strange contrast between the old man and the youthful Francis suggests something deeper. After seeing Jane, Francis replies to the old man: “What she and I have experienced is far stranger than what you have told me.” In other words, Francis has a better kind of story to tell. On one side we have an old man, representing 19th century literature, and on the other a young man heralding a new form of storytelling that will have even greater psychological and narrative means. The new mode of storytelling in this allegory is cinema.


Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror – Sinister character who sleeps in a wooden box; opposite approach to staging (artificial vs. real sets)

Warning Shadows – Framing story; traveling entertainer with wild hair who appears sinister but proves benevolent; love triangle with jealousy and murder; expressionist design elements; allegory of cinema

Metropolis – Stylized sets; sinister character who kidnaps a woman and carries her over rooftops

Vampyr – Sinister doctor and soldier (or character with a military name); Hermann Warm as art director; Alan/Allan; garden benches; explanation in old books; opening that resembles a ghost story

The Wizard of Oz – Framing story that transforms everyday reality into fantasy; key character(s) missing from framing story

Ladies in Retirement – Guilt over killing a friend; murder only shown in part; artificial setting that comments on the story

The Assassination of Père Noël – Series of mysterious crimes in a village; love triangle; creature kept in a cabinet

La nuit fantastique – Expressionist psychiatric clinic; allusion to a doctor’s “cabinet”

I Walked with a Zombie – Lighting of a gas lamp calls attention to a vital clue

Dead of Night – Framing story; bespectacled doctor with ambiguous motives; somnambulist/dummy; the name “Francis” linked to a psychological past or actual past events

Brief Encounter – Unreliable narrator; framing device

The Third Man – Story of murder, broken friendship, and jilted love; distorted settings; carnival with a carousel; sinister character’s dramatic entrance out of a recessed opening

Strangers on a Train – Shadow on wall at or right before murder; fairground with wild carousel

Wild Strawberries – Unanswered question at or near the end that challenges the audience

Vertigo – Appears to be a supernatural tale but proves to be psychological riddle

Plein soleil – Man kills his friend with insinuation of “asking for it”; settings mirror the drama

Psycho – Main character goes insane through self-deception, maintains innocence of murder, views self as heroic; stabbing scene with incomplete view of murderer

Last Year at Marienbad – Ambiguous love triangle; missing character in key location; garden bench

Red Desert – Distorted settings representing disturbed character’s point of view; lesson not limited to pathological cases

The Man Who Left His Will on Film – Visualized reality negated by the logic of the story

A Clockwork Orange – Narrated through a distorted point of view; ends with a patient’s cure

Heart of Glass – Sleepwalkers; valuable person or objects stored in a cabinet; prediction of death by morning; hurdy-gurdy; jail cell; invisible knife; sofa

The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting – Mystery that hinges on something missing (Alan or the 4th painting); protagonist wanders through a gathering of earlier characters at the end

Veronika Voss – Villainous psychiatrist (Dr. Caligari/Dr. Katz); doctor’s power stored in a cabinet; artificial white settings; sleepwalkers/morphine addicts; accusation scene; all major characters except murder victim gathered in a room

Mulholland Drive – Framing story; tale of self-deception; inner story is an alibi to cover up protagonist’s crimes or failure

Caché – Story about the effects of suppressed guilt; guilty man leads a pair of police officers to apprehend his imagined source of evil

The Day He Arrives – Framed story with an unreliable self-promoting narrator; tale of self-deception; invitation for audience to diagnose a particular fault in the protagonist